Fashion painting of models. 52nd Street New York, N.Y., ca. 1948. William P. Gottlieb. Public domain.

How Do You Know What You Can Do If There’s No One Modeling It?

Forrest Christian Careers, Underachievers Leave a Comment

Let me start with a fundamental observation: most people don’t know that they want unless they see it in context. We don’t know what kind of racing bike we want — until we see a champ in th Tour de France ratcheting the gears on a particular model. We don’t know what kind of speaker system we like — until we hear a set of speakers that sounds better than the previous one. We don’t even know what we want to do with our lives — until we find a relative or a friend who is doing just what we think we should be doing. Everything is relative, and that’s the point. Like an airplane pilot landing in the dark, we want runway lights on either side of us, guiding us to the place where we can touch down our wheels. [Ariely, Dan (2008). Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. New York: HarperCollins. P. 3]

Ariely is a fascinating writer. I’ve been reading his research lately as a result of finally getting around to reading his more accessible Predictably Irrational. Lot of his points are worth talking about here, but let’s start with one he makes above:

How can you know what you want to do if you have never seen it done?

This isn’t a small question but a large one. Most people know what they want to do with their lives because someone else has done it. And this works fine for the majority of the population who have normal growth curves.

But what do you do if you are a Hidden High Potential? Someone with a very different growth curve, or someone who speaks the language of a very different domain of work. What then?

The problem is that there aren’t models for you to see and compare to. You may not ever see a model that represents someone with your growth trajectory and natural domain of work.

This is why artists move to the city. Not to escape “small mindedness” who refuse to understand them but to find someone whom they can compare themselves to. They long not just for someone who understands them (I’ve called this “modal recognition” if you’ve been here awhile) but also someone doing something that they can try on and say, “Yeah, this fits.”

Hidden High Potentials (HHPs) often try on role after role after role. It’s one reason you people cycle through careers every couple of years.

It’s exhausting to find that no socially available role fits you. You get worn down. People who mean well but have no way of knowing that they can’t understand you tell you that you should do this or that you should do that.

These things usually fail, making you miserable and your poor advisor wondering what’s wrong with you. Okay, you think about that, too.

That’s what I’m trying to do. I can’t tell you what to do, but I can hold up new models for you to look at, new ways for you to look at the world. For some of you, I just have to give you the very bad news that because of your growth trajectory or natural work domain, you have to create your own role, build your own life out of raw materials rather than take on roles that already exist. Better to know that now and come to grips with the grief of losing the illusion that somewhere out there, someone wants to hire you to do “x”.

It’s freedom but freedom always comes at a price. I’ve heard it said that Philip K. Dick, the science fiction author, made his meager living writer novels where the protagonist seeks salvation from a colorless world, only to realize when it stares him in the face that the cost of taking it will be too great. That can happen.

But so can taking the trip out of the illusions.

Because, come what may, you’re the killer app.

Fashion painting of models. 52nd Street New York, N.Y., ca. 1948. William P. Gottlieb. Public domain.

Original comments (recovered)

Mary McQueen { 04.28.09 at 14:21 }

“…come to grips with the grief of losing the illusion that somewhere out there, someone wants to hire you to do “X”.

Can’t recall coming across a more stop-you-in-your-tracks kind of sentence in a long, long time.

Al Gorman { 04.30.09 at 05:40 }

Your observation is correct. The experience is akin to being lost in the wilderness for years, or drudging through a swamp for hundreds of miles. The individual is looking for answers within the conventional system and faces failure or rejection over and over again. It takes a tremendous amount of courage and determination to overcome these obstacles and carve out a niche that is unique and satisfying.

Julie { 05.04.09 at 15:22 }

You just summed up my “work” life. Not much else to say except: yeah.

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